Imagine what a cool dude looks like and you can easily picture a cross between James Bond and Jimmy Buffett—part mysterious international gentleman, part beach bum. If Bond and Buffett had a nephew, his name would be Dan MacPhail, and the opening line of his song would be something like:
An average boy from Illinois, An artist’s heart with a drifter’s soul.
MacPhail isn’t related to Buffett, and as far as we know, Bond is purely fictional. MacPhail is just an artist living in his studio tucked off a small country road outside Paducah. But beyond that nondescript black fence and down that gravel drive, there’s a story playing out just like the lyrics to a Buffett song.
Originally from Bloomington, Illinois, MacPhail resides and works in Kevil in Ballard County. On his MacPhail’s Studios business card, he describes his work as antler chandeliers, lamps and leather cowboy furniture. Upon entering his studio, however, it’s obvious there is so much more.
MacPhail has made a name for himself internationally for the incredible artistry he puts into his pieces, which range from doorknobs to fairytale-worthy antler canopy beds. But this time of year, he is probably best known for his antler and horn Christmas trees.
Ironically, he isn’t much of a hunter and didn’t grow up around the hobby.
“My dad had a gun, but he traded it for a guitar,” MacPhail explains. “My brother does like to take me elk hunting … but I think of it more as a great horseback ride.”
MacPhail was an artist early in life. Two of his first paintings, from Ms. Adams’ first-grade art class, are framed and proudly displayed in his showroom. His parents were supportive of his talent, and he went on to study art in high school and college.
But somewhere along the way, MacPhail’s path switched courses, and he ended up in Texas managing an environmental laboratory. While his time in Texas was brief, the Lone Star State left a brand on his heart that would stay with him through a career in politics.
MacPhail left Texas and moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a lobbyist. He recalls his career and time in the U.S. capital as unfulfilling. As a way to fuel his creativity and supplement his income, he began restoring historic paintings his friends brought back from their international travels. He slowly got back to his artistic roots.
Wanting to build something and missing Texas, MacPhail had a friend get him some longhorn steer horns. He built his first Texas longhorn chair and says, “I was hooked.”
Building a Brand
The transition from lobbyist-with-a-hobby to full-time craftsman was a slow evolution.
“I worked little by little every day,” MacPhail says. “I took a saddle-making class to learn how to upholster with leather, and my pieces got more polished.”
The first time he set up a booth with his work was at the All American Quarter Horse Congress.
“I don’t think I sold much of anything,” he remembers of that first show.
He went on to compete in the Western Design Conference in Wyoming. Each year, MacPhail stretched his design muscles to find ideas for pieces no one had seen before, and he won award after award for his work. One year, he came up with the idea to build an antler Christmas tree.
Christmas All Year
In addition to the trees being unique, MacPhail likes how his antler trees can serve as decorative pieces all year.
“I have clients who keep these trees up 12 months a year,” he explains. “But I also have clients who want to use them seasonally, so we can build them in sections for easier storage.”
Beginning with PVC pipe as the trunk, MacPhail arranges the antlers in a tree branch formation. The antlers are screwed in place, and a long drill is used to create openings for the wiring. Decorative chandelier light bulbs are strategically placed on the tips of the antlers.
Using an epoxy-type material and special tools, MacPhail then covers the PVC pipe and antler bases to look like a natural mix of tree bark and pedicels (the base of the antler). This unique finish is where his artistry shines.
Since first creating his antler trees, MacPhail has ventured into other mediums, including making trees from longhorn steer horns. The horns are polished to create a smooth, shiny finish. Each of these trees—like all of his other pieces—is a one-of-a-kind, custom work of art.
Conservation Is Key
MacPhail’s studio is full of antlers—piles of them are everywhere. But he explains that antlers are deciduous. This means the deer, elk and moose shed their antlers each year to make room for new antlers to grow.
He works with brokers to buy antlers in bulk and insists there are more antlers in the wilderness than people know what to do with. “They ship it by the caseloads to China,” he explains.
The horns, on the other hand, are not deciduous. But, according to the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America, their members do not slaughter cattle solely for the horns.
“There is more of a beef market out there than people are aware of,” explains Myra Basham, editor of the association’s Trails magazine. “We encourage our members to use the whole animal—beef, hide, skull and horns. But a lot of these members consider these animals more like pets, so the horns would be used in mounts after the animal dies of natural causes.”
Another Kind of Hunting
MacPhail is more interested in hunting fossils than anything else. He has been on several archaeological trips all over the world but has found some of his most interesting pieces right here in the United States.
Fossils of a Mesohippus (a 30-million-year-old, three-toed horse), a camel skull and a stereosternum (an aquatic life form that lived 280 million years ago) are all on display in MacPhail’s showroom.
One of his favorite pieces is a mummified turtle that he found in a cave.
“I’ve loved archaeology since I was 4 years old,” he says. “Back then, I’d find objects and make up stories about their history … Now, I get to find the real thing.”
Whether he’s hunting for fossils or hunting for his next design idea, one thing’s for sure: MacPhail will continue to hunt for his next adventure. He knows he only has one life to live, so he’s going to make it count.